PRO­FILE: Writer Car­men Maria Machado.

Author Car­men Maria Machado comes at is­sues through award-win­ning short sto­ries and prob­ing es­says, teas­ing out truths about gen­der pol­i­tics and body im­age.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Jus­tine Hyde

“What do you not see? That’s the only way to get to any­thing in­ter­est­ing, be­cause if you’re just writ­ing what you’re al­ready see­ing then who the fuck cares?” Car­men Maria Machado

An un­sea­sonal spring bl­iz­zard has dumped thick piles of snow across the east coast of the United States. Planes are grounded and Am­trak has can­celled train ser­vices. Writer Car­men Maria Machado has ar­rived in New York a day late, miss­ing a read­ing gig. She hates not hon­our­ing her com­mit­ments – it is part of what she de­scribes as her Type A per­son­al­ity, one of a num­ber of anx­i­eties she lists in a re­cent New York Times piece, along with “in­sects, germs, dis­ease and mor­tal in­jury and death, messy rooms”. In the course of a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion, each of these anx­i­eties sur­faces at least once.

Machado has been tour­ing widely to pro­mote her de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Her Body and Other Par­ties, an ex­pe­ri­ence she de­scribes as chaotic. The jug­gling of com­mit­ments gives her the feel­ing of go­ing a lit­tle crazy. “I’m in this strange place,” she says. “It’s just a phe­nom­e­non of be­ing a writer. You’re busy pro­mot­ing and … it’s selling re­ally well and get­ting nom­i­na­tions for things … it’s like, ‘God­damn it. If the book had done less well I’d be right back to writ­ing.’”

Machado writes be­tween sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy, and squarely in the realm of lit­er­ary fic­tion.

Her work is rem­i­nis­cent of An­gela Carter and Shirley Jack­son, yet it is unique. While her elas­tic­ity sits along­side con­tem­po­raries such as Kelly Link and Jeff Van­derMeer, her star is look­ing likely to eclipse both. So far, her de­but has won the Bard Fic­tion Prize and John Leonard Prize, among oth­ers, and was a fi­nal­ist in the Na­tional Book Award and Dy­lan Thomas Prize.

Ahead of meet­ing her, I see Machado’s book propped up on the top-selling and new fic­tion dis­plays of ev­ery book­store in Man­hat­tan. While an oc­ca­sional de­trac­tor calls the col­lec­tion un­even, the ac­claim has been al­most uni­ver­sal, gush­ing even. The New York Times named her part of “the new van­guard” – one of 15 women shap­ing fic­tion in the 21st cen­tury, along­side Fer­rante, Cusk, Mosh­fegh and Zadie Smith.

I meet her at Cof­fee Project, a tiny cafe in the East Vil­lage. She is early and waits out­side for me in the cold, perched on a wooden bench. She greets me warmly and we go in­side, navigating the cramped space with her lug­gage: a small suit­case and a pink hand­bag dec­o­rated with skulls. After re­mov­ing our lay­ers we or­der cof­fees and scones.

Machado has ar­rived by train from Philadel­phia, where she is the writer-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. She lives there with her wife, Val, also a writer, and grew up in nearby Al­len­town. Machado ex­per­i­mented with liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, but it didn’t work. “It’s not my speed. Peo­ple in Cal­i­for­nia are too re­laxed. I like neu­rotic and I like fast-paced, that’s the way that I func­tion best.”

The waiter brings our cof­fees. Machado has or­dered the cafe’s sig­na­ture drink, a de­con­structed latte: a glass of sparkling wa­ter, an espresso shot, warm un­pas­teurised milk, and a cafe latte served in a wine glass, all lined up on a wooden board. The waiter ex­plains the types and sources of the cof­fee beans, the tast­ing notes, pos­si­ble al­ler­gens, and the rec­om­mended drink­ing method. Machado is thrilled. “You’ll for­give me if I take a photo of this ridicu­lous thing … I love ridicu­lous things … I think it looks amaz­ing but my wife would laugh at me … if she saw that I’d or­dered this. She’d be like, ‘Of course you did.’ ” Machado refers to her wife reg­u­larly and her con­ver­sa­tion is pep­pered with “likes” and punc­tu­ated by bursts of laugh­ter. Back­street Boys are play­ing on the sound sys­tem and Machado sings along. “Sorry, this song is very dis­tract­ing be­cause ... this was, like, my high­school sound­track.”

As we talk, she takes her hair out of a pony­tail. Later, she ties it back up again. She fre­quently breaks eye con­tact mid-sen­tence to stare into the mid­dle dis­tance. Warm and per­son­able, in her early 30s, she looks less se­ri­ous and younger than in her head­shots.

In her sto­ries, Machado blends sci­ence fic­tion, fairy­tale tropes and queer erot­ica. She pulls taut on fear and de­sire, col­laps­ing these op­pos­ing forces in on one an­other. She in­vites the reader into strange and ten­der worlds that blur re­al­ity and fan­tasy, where metaphors cease to be sym­bols and be­come em­bod­ied in sur­real re­lief. Gen­der pol­i­tics bal­last her fic­tion and es­says, and vi­o­lence against women – phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial – is wo­ven through. She also deftly switches reg­is­ters be­tween hor­ror and hu­mour. “I had this weird re­la­tion­ship with com­ing into my­self as a funny writer …” she tells me. “I guess now I’m less sur­prised, but be­fore, when I did read­ings, peo­ple would laugh and it would shock me.”

You can trace Machado’s path of self-ex­plo­ration through her writ­ing. On the page, she in­ter­ro­gates her anx­i­eties and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions – mostly cen­tring around un­ruly minds and un­ruly bod­ies. She is also in­ter­ested in ex­am­in­ing sub­jects from new an­gles and adding to the dis­course on dif­fi­cult top­ics. “I think of­ten peo­ple write what they think peo­ple want to read. Why would you do that? … What do you not see? That’s the only way to get to any­thing in­ter­est­ing, be­cause if you’re just writ­ing what you’re al­ready see­ing then who the fuck cares?”

Take fat­ness. Machado had wanted to write an es­say about it for a long time. She says fat­pho­bia is still rel­a­tively un­der­ex­am­ined and un­der­cri­tiqued. “The com­pul­sive-re­flex­ive na­ture of fat­pho­bia is just re­ally deep and I feel that it’s not a thing we talk about a lot … There’s dif­fer­ent kinds of fat, there’s the kind of fat that I am, which is, like, big­ger than is ac­cept­able but also fits in plus-size cloth­ing, and there’s the kind of fat that means the world is in­ac­ces­si­ble to you.”

She could never fig­ure out how to ap­proach the topic: “I wrote a lot but none of it ever sounded good … It didn’t feel au­then­tic and it … never felt new.” In­stead, she wrote a short story, “Eight Bites”, about gas­tric band surgery. “It helped me un­lock some stuff be­cause I had the abil­ity to write what­ever I wanted.”

Writ­ing fic­tion helped Machado ar­rive at a the­sis about fat­ness and, ear­lier this year, she pub­lished an es­say on the topic in Guer­nica, “The Trash Heap Has Spo­ken”. She says, “... in the end, I felt re­ally good when I fin­ished it ... like I had ar­rived at some­thing in­ter­est­ing and new”. Machado re­ceived a lot of feed­back on the piece; many peo­ple wrote to thank her. “I’m re­ally proud of it be­cause I feel that I pur­sued my own mind through the chaos … to get to my own philo­soph­i­cal ends and that was im­por­tant to me.”

She feels as if we are in the midst of a fat writ­ing re­nais­sance, with au­thors such as Rox­ane Gay and Lindy West “writ­ing re­ally in­tel­li­gently about these ideas and it’s re­ally ex­cit­ing to me … I look for­ward to more work com­ing out that ex­am­ines it from dif­fer­ent an­gles.” She men­tions fat and trauma and fat and race. “Peo­ple say this – and it’s wrong – that it’s the last prej­u­dice.”

When her book tour fin­ishes this month, Machado will be spend­ing the sum­mer at a res­i­dency in New Mex­ico work­ing on a mem­oir. It will be, at least in part, about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in same-sex re­la­tion­ships. In pre­cur­sor sto­ries “Moth­ers” and “Blur”, she again used fic­tion as a key to un­lock com­plex feel­ings about a topic, which, she says, hasn’t had much art de­voted to it. “I know, be­cause I’ve looked re­ally hard … I’m writ­ing it be­cause I feel like it’s a space that de­mands a cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry … Now I’m try­ing to go at it with a non­fic­tion an­gle and I’m very scared of that. I’m scared I won’t get it right.” She says it will be hard to be away from her wife for such a long time dur­ing the res­i­dency: “It’s just me fin­ish­ing that stupid fuck­ing mem­oir. I just need to purge it.”

What other is­sues does she re­gard as be­ing due an ex­plo­ration in lit­er­a­ture? She thinks for a while be­fore men­tion­ing women’s per­spec­tives on mur­der and men­ace, pain, med­i­cal and health is­sues. She reels off a list of re­cent books: Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, Abby Nor­man’s Ask Me About My Uterus, and Tal­lu­lah Pomeroy’s A Girl’s Guide to Per­sonal Hy­giene, which Machado de­scribes as an “il­lus­trated guide to gross, plea­sur­able things” about women’s bod­ies. “It’s so gross and I love it.” She looks around the cafe, be­fore adding: “I can’t talk about it here.”

I want to en­cour­age her but we are al­ready the loud­est ta­ble and other cus­tomers are turn­ing to eaves­drop on us. She con­tin­ues: “There’s some­thing re­ally in­ter­est­ing about that vis­ceral space. It’s like, let’s not just ex­am­ine the body as an ob­ject but also the body as this beat­ing, puls­ing node in this larger net of wom­an­hood.”

Machado views this kind of writ­ing as ev­i­dence of a new gen­er­a­tion of women em­brac­ing fem­i­nism and re­claim­ing their bod­ies, an in­di­ca­tion of a shift from prud­ish anx­i­ety to­wards a more open at­ti­tude, rem­i­nis­cent of the first wave of fem­i­nism. Gen­der and sex­u­al­ity are breezily fluid in Machado’s sto­ries; she has been asked many times about the pres­ence of sex in her writ­ing and can­not un­der­stand why peo­ple are so fix­ated on it. “When I read sex in fic­tion writ­ten by men the ma­jor­ity of the time there’s such deep pro­found con­tempt for the fe­male body … I just like the idea of queer sex be­ing el­e­vated to a higher lit­er­ary art. Why would I not want that?”

Dis­cussing queer sex leads us to the topic of same-sex mar­riage. When Machado’s home state of Penn­syl­va­nia leg­is­lated for change, she was out of town on a writer’s res­i­dency. Mid hike, her phone buzzed with the news. “I was sob­bing on this moun­tain … I hon­estly did not think it would hap­pen in my life­time.” Now that same-sex mar­riage has been le­galised across the whole of the United States, Machado says the de­trac­tors have given up on that de­bate and moved on to tar­get other mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple.

With US pol­i­tics a source of fas­ci­na­tion for Aus­tralians, it seems likely she will be asked about Trump when she makes her first visit here in May to pro­mote her book. Machado laughs at the cross-cul­tural heads-up: “I have a lot of thoughts about that – Trump is bad. But also tell me about the spi­ders you have, I hear they are huge ... I just imag­ine that every­body is a spider. Spi­ders in­stead of house cats.” Her sense of Aus­tralia came through a phase of watch­ing odd Aus­tralian cinema, she says. “They all have a sim­i­lar vibe to them – it’s like, very manic and weird, and I ab­so­lutely love it.”

Trav­el­ling widely is a keen am­bi­tion for Machado: “All of this, my whole ca­reer, is to just get me enough money to travel.” Her sched­ule has meant turn­ing down of­fers, in­clud­ing a writ­ers’ fes­ti­val in New Zealand, which she hopes to later visit, in­spired by The Lord of the Rings films. “I imag­ine New Zealand is just like Mid­dle Earth.” She spent her hon­ey­moon in Europe, and trav­elled to Cuba with her brother, where they have fam­ily. Scot­land is high on her list, as is Ice­land after hav­ing once en­joyed a brief stopover in Reyk­javik, which she de­scribes as “all golden light and pur­ple flow­ers”.

She is at­tracted to dra­matic land­scape but ad­mits her love for drama is not limited to the en­vi­ron­ment. “Just any type of drama, re­ally – I’m into it.”

Later that night I am ob­server to her dra­matic mode of the finest kind: read­ing from her work. In the Soviet-themed KGB Bar on East 4th Street, she ap­pears along­side four writ­ers en­rolled in New York Univer­sity’s mas­ter of fine arts pro­gram. Machado is the main act. I squeeze into the only spare seat – the venue is packed with bod­ies pressed close to­gether, peo­ple jostling for space at the bar to buy beers. Lenin hangs over­head. The sounds of Man­hat­tan are a back­ing track to the read­ings. Out­side, the day-old snow melts into pud­dles.

Machado de­liv­ers her story “In­ven­tory”, an erotic tale of sex and an End Times epi­demic, across a breath­less 19 min­utes. The crowd is spell­bound. When she fin­ishes her read­ing, a long line of fan girls wait to gush and seize her sig­na­ture. I join the end of the ta­per­ing queue, say good­bye to Machado, and take the

• nar­row steps down onto the street.

JUS­TINE HYDE is a li­brary di­rec­tor, writer and critic liv­ing in Mel­bourne.

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